‘Tourism infrastructure will be govt’s top priority’

Nepal’s tourism industry has been bouncing back slowly after the severe effect caused by the earthquakes in April 2015. As Nepal received more than one million foreign tourists in 2017, which is a long-awaited goal of the government, stakeholders are optimistic that tourism in Nepal will grow further in the future following stability in the country. Sujan Dhungana of The Himalayan Times spoke to Maheswor Neupane, secretary at the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation and Sunil Sakya, chairman of PATA Nepal, to discuss the state of domestic tourism and ways to sustain and nurture indicators of growth in the sector.

Nepal has finally lived up to its plan to draw one million tourists annually in 2017. What do you have to say on this?

The tourist inflow data maintained by the Department of Immigration (DoI) shows that more than one million foreign tourists visited Nepal in 2017. This is a moment of pride for us and an indication that tourism industry in the country is growing. Nepal today has good tourism and economic indicators. If we are able to sustain these achieved indicators of growth, the growth of Nepal’s tourism sector will intensify in coming years. I believe that we were able to meet the one million target of foreign tourists last year basically due to better tourism promotion through collaborative efforts of the government and private sector and signs of peace and prosperity that Nepal showed in 2017. Meanwhile, we have a bigger challenge to sustain the current tourism growth. For this, we need more powerful strategies, sound tourism infrastructure, attractive products and stable policies. Among other factors, the first priority of the country for tourism growth should be to develop new tourism infrastructure and upgrade existing infrastructure. In a bid to promote Nepal as a tourist destination in the global market, the government is observing 2018 as ‘Visit Nepal Year’. We plan to draw almost 1.5 million foreign tourists this year with attractive tourism promotional packages. As outbound tourism in China and India is growing in recent years, the government has been developing attractive packages to promote Nepal’s cross-border tourism with the two neighbours. If we are able to brand our tourism products properly, Nepal can surely achieve its goal of attracting two million annual tourists by 2020.

Though the government has set an ambitious target of attracting two million tourists annually by 2020, the development progress of different tourism-related projects, especially domestic and international airports is not satisfactory. Do you think target is achievable given Nepal’s weak air connectivity in the global market?

Nepal’s connectivity to global tourism is basically through the country’s borders with India and China and the only international airport — Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA). While the government has been promoting cross-border tourism targeting Indian and Chinese tourists, it is true that Nepal’s connectivity to global market via air-route is weak as the country has only one international airport. Moreover, the condition of TIA, which is regarded as the ‘gateway to Nepal’ is also not proper. This is why Nepal today needs an optional international airport and other domestic airports to increase connectivity among domestic as well as foreign destinations. In a bid to enhance connectivity to and from Nepal, the government has been highly prioritising the construction of second international airport in Nijgadh. Currently, site clearance and infrastructure development works are underway at the planned Nijgadh International Airport. Similarly, the government has made quite good progress in the construction of Gautam Buddha Airport in Bhairahawa. Though the construction of Gautam Buddha Airport (Bhairahawa airport) was supposed to be completed by June this year, the contractor of the project has given commitment to the government to complete at least 80 per cent construction works of the project by June. However, improving the standard of TIA and adding new aircraft to the fleet of Nepal Airlines are crucial to achieve the set foreign tourist inflow target.

The government had earlier announced it would celebrate 2018 as ‘Visit Nepal Year’ to attract foreign tourists. What is being done to mark the event?

The government has recently established a secretariat for ‘Visit Nepal Year 2018’. The secretariat will prepare and formulate different tourism programmes to mark the event and promote Nepal’s tourism. Primarily, we aim to increase the inflow of Indian, Chinese and European tourists. We have developed separate concept papers to attract more foreign tourists from these three destinations. Basically, we plan to promote mass tourism from China through digital marketing. Similarly, we are promoting pilgrimage tourism targeting Indian outbound tourists.

Nepal’s weak air connectivity to the global market is believed to be another bottleneck for tourism growth. What plan does the government have to address this setback?

Though Nepal will have wider international connectivity to the global market after the operation of second international airport in Nijgadh, the immediate solution is to add aircraft to the fleet of Nepal Airlines and increase international flights. The government has already developed a business plan to enhance Nepal Airlines and its services. Nepal Airlines is in the process of acquiring two wide-body aircraft. The government will also add a few other aircraft to the national flag carrier’s fleet. As the air-travel cost to Nepal is comparatively higher, discouraging foreign tourists to visit the country, Nepal Airlines will gradually connect its flights to different foreign destinations and facilitate international travellers to Nepal.

‘Stable politics, govt and policies crucial to sustain tourism growth’

How would you evaluate the state of the country’s tourism sector at present?

I believe that Nepal’s tourism industry is slowly regaining confidence after the earthquake in April, 2015 and the economic blockade of India. Nepal is a loved place in the global market and international communities, media and people supported Nepal to bounce back immediately even after the devastation caused by the quake and the blockade. It is a positive sign for Nepal’s tourism industry that the country has crossed the mark of one million foreign tourists in 2017. Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) Nepal is an important partner to Nepal’s tourism sector. Along with extending support to different tourism programmes, projects and plans of the government, PATA Nepal has been running a campaign to attract five million tourists annually by 2030, which I believe is possible. However, a lot needs to be done to accomplish the goal of attracting five million tourists annually. Firstly, the infrastructure bottleneck of the country has to be addressed. The government should give ample priority to develop sound infrastructure in the country. Secondly, there is an urgent need to strengthen Nepal’s aviation sector by enhancing the standard of Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA), expediting and operationalising different planned international and domestic airports and increasing air-connectivity to and from Nepal in different foreign destinations. Thirdly, the government should reform existing policies related to tourism and make them friendly to tourism growth. Similarly, human capital development, effective marketing and product development along with service standardisation are the other key elements that will ensure tourism growth in Nepal. PATA Nepal has been working with the government and other stakeholders on these issues. If all these bottlenecks are addressed seriously, the future of tourism in Nepal is bright.

What do you think is required to sustain the current growth indicators in the tourism industry?

Nepal has witnessed good indicators in the tourism sector following the hopes of stability in the country. The successful completion of the parliamentary and provincial elections has increased the confidence of tourism in Nepal. Thus, I believe that stable politics, government and its policies are crucial to sustain the current indicators of growth in the tourism industry. If we have a stable government for at least five years, it will certainly make a difference. Similarly, the construction works of different planned tourism projects, including the construction of different airports should be hastened. Likewise, government agencies working for tourism growth like Nepal Airlines and Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN), among others should have good people who can make a difference in the country’s tourism industry. Also, these organisations should be free from politics. Similarly, the government also should open up different new borders connecting India and China. As airfare to Nepal and ground handling cost at TIA are comparatively high, such costs should be made competitive to attract foreign tourists. Along with this, the country also should focus on quality tourism products, development of good hotels and services and best holiday packages which are crucial for outbound tourists.

It is said that it is also because of inadequate promotional activities that Nepal’s tourism sector is lagging behind. How true is this?

Efforts are being made to promote tourism in Nepal. However, they are inadequate. We need more promotional activities in an aggressive manner. As the conventional way of marketing is not relevant in today’s competitive market, we should focus on digital marketing of our tourism products. In a bid to promote Nepal’s tourism in the global market, PATA Nepal has been organising Himalayan Travel Mart (HTM) every year. This year HTM will be organised from June 1 to 3. The Himalayan Travel Mart is a B2B (business to business) event for the Himalayan tourism industry, which promotes the gathering of global buyers, sellers, travel bloggers, national and international media, travel industry professionals and delegates.